Mindfulness meditation is big business in London's Square Mile

Advocates say mindful meditation focuses the mind and boosts concentration, therefore boosting productivity. But it has been criticised for abandoning the spiritual premise behind it for secular gain, as Siobhan Norton reports

Here, have a raisin. No, not a handful, just the one. Wait, wait, wait, don't eat it. Feel its weight in your palm. Squeeze it gently between finger and thumb. Examine the glossy surface, the bumpy texture. OK, pop it in your mouth. Don't bite, not yet. Roll it on your tongue. How does it taste? Bite once. Can you feel the juices flowing to hit your taste buds? Is it pleasant or unpleasant? Does it remind you of anything? You can keep chewing now. And swallow. Feel it move towards your stomach...

This is the much ridiculed lesson that you will probably come across if you embark on a mindfulness course. In a nutshell, it sums up the concept – taking your time, considering the now, experiencing the moment. While there are plenty that imagine a room filled with people sitting staring at raisins must contain more than a few fruitcakes, the reach of mindfulness now extends far beyond some remote Buddhist temples. Tech geniuses are walking the labyrinth in Silicon Valley, world leaders are jostling for a cross-legged sitting space at international conferences, and, even in the City, bankers are taking a pause.

It's a far cry from the classic lunch-is-for-wimps Gordon Gekko-esque idea we normally have of those in the financial sector. We hear more about people depending on cocaine and Red Bull than cognitive exercises. But it is becoming more mainstream, even encouraged, in top banking firms, with many offering mindfulness courses and retreats. Goldman Sachs, Barclays and JP Morgan are just some of the firms investing in the area.

It makes sense that the frantic corporate world should turn to mindfulness. There is a Zen proverb that says: "You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes every day – unless you're too busy. Then you should sit for an hour." If you, say, paint landscapes for a living, you are probably quite often 'in the moment'. If you're the type that checks your emails hundreds of times a day, probably not.

Of course, these corporations have not suddenly gone all warm and fuzzy – it makes financial sense. Less stress and anxiety in the workplace means less absenteeism. Advocates say mindful meditation focuses the mind and boosts concentration, therefore boosting productivity. Leaders are said to gain empathy and patience, which will result in a happier team.

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Celebrity fan: Oprah Winfrey is said to practise mindfulness (Getty)

It seems win-win, but mindfulness, raisin or no, has left a bad taste in many mouths. It has been criticised for abandoning the spiritual premise behind it for secular gain, branded trendy psychobabble. And a trend it certainly is. Fashion magazines offer advice on mindful eating, health columns remind us to have mindful moments. Celebrities casually mention their mindfulness guru in interviews. Sadie Frost does it. Oprah does it. Gwyneth surely does it. You can move mindfully, travel mindfully, even go to the loo mindfully.

And yet mindfulness is being recognised by science more and more. Although it has its roots in Buddhism, secular mindfulness has stripped out much of the spiritual and focused on the scientific. In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course in the University of Massachusetts to treat the chronically ill, and now psychologists and medical professionals all over the world are using mindfulness.

There are now masters courses in mindfulness in the UK, and it is being piloted in schools, government, the prison system and for unemployed people. Studies report that mindfulness lowers stress, is good for your heart and can alleviate IBS and skin conditions such as psoriasis. The US Marine Corps uses it for its troops to help with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In prisons, it can help reduce violence. And in schools, it can curb the growing problem of anxiety among pupils.

Labour MP Chris Ruane discovered mindfulness when he was working as a teacher. "I found it helped my pupils focus, and regain their attention after lunchtime," he says. "We even used it to improve their creative writing." Ruane's relationship with mindfulness stayed with him into his political career, and now he is the co-chair of an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness, in association with the Mindfulness Initiative. The initiative works with parliamentarians and policy makers to develop recommendations on the role of mindfulness in society. More than 100 Lords have now completed a mindfulness course.

Mindfulness, however, has not just burst on to the Western world. It began creeping into many people's consciousness along with the counter-culture movement of the 1960s. Steve Jobs placed huge importance on meditation following his time travelling in India, and spoke of how Zen had influenced his designs. The rise to prominence of trendy 'Don't Be Evil' tech firms promoted worker well-being and further fuelled the mindfulness train. Google offers an internal course called Search Inside Yourself, or 'neural self-hacking', and has even built an indoor labyrinth for mindful walking.

The man behind Google's course, Chade-Meng Tan – who holds the job title Jolly Good Fellow – says meditation thickens the brain's cortex, lowers blood pressure, can heal psoriasis and even get you a promotion. He teaches simple-sounding techniques such as pausing before sending important emails and silently wishing happiness upon difficult colleagues.

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Steve Jobs placed huge importance on meditation following his time travelling in India, and spoke of how Zen had influenced his designs (Getty)

Rest assured, though, that greed is still good. There is plenty of money to be made from mindfulness. Glasgow-based Rohan Gunatillake invented a meditation app called Buddhify, which became a worldwide hit. Its successor, Buddhify2, clocked up six million minutes of use in less than a year. The Headspace app, launched by Andy Puddicombe, a Bristolian former monk, is worth £25m, and has been downloaded in 150 different countries. And there are any number of companies providing mindfulness training and courses for both private individuals and corporates.

Alexa Frey and Autumn Totton set up The Mindfulness Project in 2013. The pair had met while studying, and Totton had gone on to a demanding career in asset management. She contacted Frey for advice on mindfulness, and she began to teach her via Skype. As their friendship developed, they decided to form The Mindfulness Project together, combining Totton's business expertise and Frey's experience in mindfulness. Their classes are frequented by everyone from new mothers, older people who have dealt with illness or bereavement – and a large number of businessmen and women.

"When I first discovered mindfulness – those fleeting moments of pure peace – I thought, 'Someone has to tell people about this'," says Frey. "Practising mindfulness meditation is like training a muscle. Our minds have a default mode – if you don't control it, it goes all over the place. Mindfulness makes you less reactive, but also more in touch with your emotions."

Ruane is also passionate about why mindfulness does, in fact, matter. "We are all on this hedonic treadmill that keeps going faster and faster," he says. "We spend money we haven't got, are plagued by digital distraction and bombarded by advertising, which is designed to make you unhappy with your lot."

Tessa Watt, a mindfulness teacher who is part of the Mindfulness Initiative, says you don't need to head straight for your nearest mountain top to be mindful. She has written a book, Mindful London, on achieving urban calm. "There is 'formal practice', where you meditate and focus on your breath, and this is important to practise often," she says. "But you can also apply it to everything you do. Take pauses throughout the day – on public transport, before eating a meal. It's about catching yourself – if you live in a city you can use triggers, like a siren or alarm, to help remind you to stop."

As harried, besuited workers stream out of Bank station every morning, it is difficult to imagine much that would make any of them take a pause. This, say disciples of mindfulness, is the point. Gordon Gekko says that greed captures the essence of evolutionary spirit – but perhaps this is the next phase of evolution.

Mind over matter: from high finance to higher consciousness

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Simon Abel (above) is an investment banker who left the City to join the investment firm, ClearlySo, which raises capital for businesses creating positive impacts.

"I got depressed about the world and the City in 2005 and yet felt completely unable to do anything about it. At this point I was working in the City in corporate finance. I got more and more upset and frustrated about it – and then my wife suggested out of desperation that I ought to do something active, so I started to do some yoga. This led me on the path to a deeper and fuller knowledge of all the attributes of yoga – you exercise the muscles to tire them out a little, which then allows your brain to forget about your body, which is the first expression of detachment.

In the beginning, mindfulness felt completely at odds with the City mentality. Eventually it got to the point where I didn't work for a couple of years, but I did continue practising the yoga and the mindfulness. I don't believe that mindfulness doesn't fit with other jobs in the City, it's just that it allows you to become more aware of everything outside of yourself – there are all these things that you have no control of. You start to realise how fortunate you are – the more grateful you are, the happier you become, the more focused your intention is on what your 'inner being' is telling you to do. My inner being tells me I need to earn money to keep my family going – yet seek to genuinely help people and find a job that intellectually challenges me, too.

A year ago, I knew that I had to find a job where I was using my skills I had learnt from my finance career, but being true to everything I had learnt. And frankly I couldn't think of anything. A year later, I am at ClearlySo, working on growing positive social impacts.

Mindfulness can be used as a way of channelling your intent and achieving your goals. And, of course, mindfulness certainly helps to give you an ability to practise increasing your level of focus on the issue at hand – and that is invaluable in terms of getting jobs done on time, under pressure. At the same time, this is an incredibly stressful world and mindfulness helps you to find space in that stress. It's a bit like in between your inhalation and your exhalation of breath, there is a moment in time where you are not doing anything. Being mindful of that moment can add so much value to you – that is your space. I have found so much more happiness by listening to what my inner being is telling me to do than by following the crowd."

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Eva Luterkort (left) is an investment banker

"I became interested in mindfulness a few years ago when I felt like I needed more balance in my life. I had at that time been working long hours in a City law firm for a few years and was generally feeling rather drained and stressed. As a concept, mindfulness was, however, quite alien and 'airy-fairy' to me, so before I started practising, it I felt like I needed to be convinced on a more 'scientific' level. Having read Daniel Siegel's book Mindsight, as well as research around neuroplasticity, I became fascinated not only by the powerful impact it could have on your thoughts, feelings and general emotional well-being, but also by the physical impact it could have on the brain (thickening of certain membranes, etc, by stimulating neuron activity) and body (lowering of blood pressure and cortisol levels, etc). I decided to give it a go and started doing short, very basic mindfulness exercises.

For me, mindfulness is grounding and helps me put things into perspective: it allows me to take a step back and anchor myself in the present moment even when things are hectic. It makes me resilient and helps me cope with stress. It improves my ability to concentrate and therefore to do a better job. It also makes me a better, more balanced human being who has better relationships with other people, both in my professional and personal life.

I think the benefit of mindfulness is something that most of the big institutions in the City now recognise and support. Employers increasingly understand that they can only really maximise the full potential of their employees if they are well functioning, healthy and resilient. Employers have been encouraging physical fitness among employees for some time now with gym memberships – supporting mindfulness is the next step. It makes sense from a business perspective."

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Louise Chester (right) is the founder of Mindfulness at Work, which offers corporate training courses in mindfulness. She is a former director in financial services.

"I discovered mindfulness almost completely by accident. About 20 years ago, my next-door neighbour asked to use my phone. She had locked herself out of her house and had a flight to catch – but she just seemed to remain so calm, even as I felt my own panic rising. Eventually, I had to ask her how she did it, and she told me about mindfulness. I asked her if she would teach me about it.

I started meditating with the help of my neighbour – she advised me to spend 45 minutes to an hour on formal practice, although I know now that even 10 minutes makes a difference. Even though I was carving out that time to meditate, I quickly felt like there was more time, more space in the day. I felt much less assaulted by life – more waving, less drowning.

Sitting out on a busy trading floor, it helped me to cope with a deluge of information – an investment analyst's job involves trying to process huge amounts of data into wise action and advice. I found I could choose when to focus in on big financial spreadsheets and when to extend my awareness out to take in the sentiment on the trading floor; I would be more present when on the phone to a client, my memory improved and I was less often in 'react' mode when it came to making decisions.

I started to teach my friends and family about mindfulness, and it was so lovely to see other people getting the benefits. Mindfulness at Work developed from there, and it's a real labour of love. Everyone involved with the company has a senior corporate background, and all believe that the only reason we thrived in that world was thanks to our personal mindfulness practices. The corporate world seems to be ready for this training now – we normally get standing room only whenever we hold a corporate session. I always say to the organiser: 'Don't worry, there will not be one moment that will make your toes curl'. This is not 'knit your own yogurt' stuff but peak performance through self-awareness, self-care, clarity and focus. The response we always get is a queue of people wanting to know when they can take our four-week work-based introductory course.

What's most rewarding is seeing how it helps people in not just their work but in their personal lives. Mindfulness makes you realise you are not your thoughts – because you are stopping and noticing them with an open mind. Mindfulness is kindfulness, and the whole basis of it is compassion, for yourself and others.

It's never a case of just 'getting it'; 20 years on I'm still a work in progress. With mindfulness, you have to apply it in real life. It's like having a gym membership: the exercise you do there builds your fitness and then you support it by taking the stairs instead of the lift. And it all contributes to you feeling great throughout your day. Your 10 minutes formal mindfulness practice is the same. You support it during the day, by taking pauses when waiting in line, or sitting on the train. This helps us realise that choices are there in every moment and it's our responsibility to make the most value-creating ones."

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